Montage-at-a-Distance, or: A Theory of Distance
A birth without a bearer: imagine a monster that devours the person from whom he came. Or perhaps a process in which some die while ignoring the fact that they are giving birth, while others, while being born, ignore the fact that they kill.
I am not sure if these are the right terms that capture the essence of this method or theory but, for now, it seems to me the most accurate definition.
For the phenomenon I want to discuss would require not only changing established ideas but also our descriptive methods. Our task is complicated precisely by the fact that, in our attempt to define this phenomenon, we will have to use descriptive methods already known and refer to established ideas.
As we all know, a long time ago, when man wanted to move faster, he invented the wheel. Thousands of years have passed and man realised that he wanted to move even faster. Then it became clear that the very same wheel had become an obstacle to his desire to move faster. Why do I say all this?
Because many of my colleagues who have seen my films The Beginning aka Beginning (Skisb / Nachalo, 1967) and Us aka We (Menq / My, 1969) think that, in these films, I resurrect or repeat the montage principles of the 1920s, the principles of Sergei Eisenstein and Dziga Vertov. Similar ideas could also be found in some film reviews published in the Soviet press and abroad.
This is how I can answer that charge. Everything that could help me to express my feelings and thoughts on screen has always been inspired by the best that not only Eisenstein and Vertov created, but also by my direct and indirect mentors: Sergei Gerasimov, Mikhail Romm, Sergei Yutkevich, Leonid Kristi, Sergei Parajanov, Grigory Chukhrai, Ingmar Bergman, Alain Resnais, Akira Kurosawa, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Stanley Kubrick and others.
Vertov and Eisenstein were not my starting point; rather, I have come to formulate similar principles as a result of my own work. Deep inside, I feel that I do not repeat or imitate their principles, but rather try to do something of my own.
And only gradually I have come to realise how my conception of montage is different compared to that defined by the montage theories of the 1920s.
I would not like to proclaim banalities here, but I have to refer to some rather familiar facts – since the distinctions I want to elaborate are so fundamental that they require critical comparison with the foundational principles of Vertov’s and Eisenstein’s montage theories.
As we know, any kind of artwork has a form. But the laws for the creation of that form, and therefore the laws determining its perception, are different for the various arts.
So, the works of spatial arts (graphic arts, painting, sculpture, architecture) are perceived through our vision, and their form, at any moment, can be wholly grasped. The general contours of the visual art form are, as a rule, grasped before we can see the details.
Form in other arts, such as literature and music, on the contrary, develops in time. That is why, in these arts, we grasp the whole gradually, in our mind, out of their details. The details appear one after another and merge themselves into a whole, thanks to the necessary collaboration of memory. Here, as is well known, the general contours, as a rule, are established only after the details are grasped.
As to cinema, it relies simultaneously on the resources of both the spatial and temporal arts.
But we must not confuse, either in theory or in practice, this combination of resources with the mechanical sum of the different elements of the different arts.
Already at the beginning of the 1920s Vertov wrote:
We do not object to cinema’s undermining of literature and the theatre; we wholly approve of the use of cinema is every branch of knowledge, but we define these functions as accessory, as secondary offshoots of cinema.
The main and essential thing is:
The sensory exploration of the world through film. (1)
He urged filmmakers:
– to flee –
out into the open, into four dimensions (three + time), in search of our own material, our meter and rhythm. (2)
Montage has emerged as the most important and precise instrument for the organisation of cinematic material. If film directors and theorists of early cinema saw montage as a means for the mere presentation of events on screen, Vertov and Eisenstein demonstrated, respectively, its possibilities as a method of ‘organisation of the visible world’ (3), and its importance as the ‘basic nerve’ of a ‘purely cinematic’ realm. (4) ‘Cinema’, wrote Eisenstein, ‘is, first and foremost, montage’. (5)
As he developed the principles of sound cinema, Eisenstein introduced the fundamental principle of the contrapuntal union of image and sound. In his theoretical works he strove ‘to find the key for the commensurability between a musical sequence and a sequence of images.’ (6) Vertov formulated a similar principle:
A sound film, not a soundtrack added to a silent film.
A synthetic film, not sound plus image. It can’t be shown one-sidedly – in images or in sound alone. The images, in this case, are only one facet of a many-faceted work.
The result is a third composition that is
neither in the sound nor the image but that exists only in the continual interaction of sound recording and image. (7) (I emphasise
this final phrase.)
Vertov thought that reality could only be truly grasped cinematically through the documentary record of actual facts. He called acted cinema ‘theatre restored’. (8) Eisenstein believed cinema has the right to use any kind of material, and can go ‘beyond the played and the non-played’. (9)
Us was conceived and filmed by me as a feature film. Unfortunately, feature films are commonly understood as films in which individual characters are interpreted by actors. But the concept of the feature film is wider and richer than the concept of non-documentary film. (10) Even the philosopher Nikolay Chernyshevsky said that ‘to draw a face wonderfully’ is not the same as ‘to draw a wonderful face’. (11) In the same way, in the assessment of the aesthetic value of a represented object, there is room not only for the ‘who’, the ‘ what’ and the ‘what for’, but also for the ‘how’.
In my film no acting can be seen, and the particular trajectories of people’s lives are not shown either. All this is the outcome of a conscious decision in terms of directing the film and staging its dramaturgy. The film hinges on a certain compositional principle, on an audio-visual montage, without the assistance of any kind of verbal narration.
It is almost impossible to express in words the content of such films. They exist only on screen; one must see them. But, since the form of any art work expresses its content, and the unity of both is always determined by the coherence of the worldview of the author, I will try to explain here the ideas and conceptions that guided me throughout its making.
Dziga Vertov, ed. Annette Michelson, trans. Kevin O’Brien, Kino-Eye: The Writings of Dziga Vertov (Berkeley: University of
California Press, 1984), p. 14. The material for this book is drawn from
Sergei Drobashenko, Statii, dnevniki,
zamysly (Moscow: Izd. Iskusstva, 1966), which is the source Pelechian uses,
just as he uses the Russian edition of Eisenstein’s collected writings.
Ibid., p. 7.
Ibid., p. 72.
S.M. Eisenstein, ed. & trans. Richard Taylor, Selected Works – Volume I: Writings, 1922-34 (London: BFI
Publishing/Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988), p. 150.
Ibid., p. 138.
Eisenstein, ed. & trans. Jay Leyda, The
Film Sense (New York: Meridian Books, 1957), pp. 67-109.
Vertov, Kino-Eye, p. 243.
Ibid., p. 101.
Eisenstein, Selected Works, pp. 101-6.
10. Translator’s note: Pelechian is
playing on a double meaning of the term ‘feature film’ in Russian, which can
also be translated as ‘art film’, but designates the whole domain of feature (non-documentary)
filmmaking. It is in this sense that he emphasises the artistic, aesthetic
value of feature film, often lost in common usage of the term.
11. See his 1853 text ‘The Aesthetic Relations of Art to Reality’.
The film title itself, Us, foregrounds the idea that man comes to understand himself only as part of a nation, as belonging to his people, to humanity as a whole. I do not speak here only of my consciousness as an author, but also about the consciousness of the people to whom this film is dedicated.
These people are my contemporaries and compatriots. I tried to construct a composite, montage image of their life on their own land.
Here, of course, there are certain features similar to some aspects of my previous films: Land of the People (Zemlya Lyudey, 1966) and The Beginning, in which I tried to create a broad social and political generalisation that would unite the people represented in them. First, around the idea of a single working day; second, around the idea of revolutionary history. But, besides these similarities, there are also differences.
When I began working on Us, I set myself a series of new objectives that would define its distinctive qualities.
If, in The Beginning, the dramaturgy was-built around the movements of human tumults and popular masses, in this film I tried to get closer to singular individuals, to their souls. However, in this particular case, I did not set myself as a task to show individuals that were unique. My task, once again, was to show through a singular individual not only what was particular, but also what was common to all of them – so that the image of the represented people was the result of the appreciation of the typical, and so in the mind of the audience the image of the people as a whole, not the image of a single individual, could be born. I tried to offer a kind of cardiogram of the spirit of the people and of the national character.
I decided to reveal the history of a nation not through the great achievements of the past, but through observation of contemporaneousness, of contemporary man. I tried to draw on those real life events and circumstances through which historical traditions are shown and perceived in a more convincing way, demonstrating characteristic behavioural patterns of my people. Obviously, this image of a national character, created by a montage generalisation, should have geared the ideological content of the film neither toward nationalistic praise, nor towards the idea of national exclusivity, but towards sincere patriotic feelings and civil pride.
My task was to discover international values common to all humankind in those national longings and passions, so that the characteristics of the people represented in the film would inspire audiences to experience the power and beauty of universal human love, of unstoppable creative will.
Such were my main aims.
To what degree was I successful in achieving these aims? Am I satisfied with my results? It is hard to give a definitive answer to these questions. First of all, a rather long time has passed since I made the film. If I were to make that film today, I would do certain things in a very different way. Second, the film has been repeatedly re-cut, undergoing some changes. I can positively state that, basically, in the original version, I was able to achieve all the aims I set myself. It demonstrated that audio-visual montage, without any verbal commentary, can be successfully used to create a very long (30 minute) film.
The released version retains the fundamental ideological conception, and the expression of the theme of the nation that can be understood by all humanity. Nevertheless, it lost the poly- and multi-faceted quality of metaphorical personification and, as a result, its integrity. Its metaphorical value diminished, even in those moments that are more visible in the present version. Thus these eliminations have mutilated not only the form of the film, but also its content.
A few words about the kind of eliminations inflicted on the film. As I have already said, it rested on the juxtaposition of the projection of bigger-than-life images of individual persons, and the aggregate representation of the feelings and conditions of the masses. We were able to film some real events, through which the creative will of the masses revealed itself. This footage took a prominent, almost the most important, place in the film. Unfortunately, this footage had to be cut out of the film, due to grave political reasons that did not have any relation whatsoever to the film’s aesthetic value. Instead of the eliminated episodes, we had to look for other film material which could express ideas about this creative will. So, for example, shots of men breaking and carving stone were included in the film. This treatment of the theme was merely symbolic in the end, and is much less vigorous than the material in the first version.
During the process of trimming the film, I established a cruel law: any change in the film breaks its balance and initiates a series of other changes. To rebuild one part means rebuilding the whole.
When I finally finished the long version of the film, I had to listen to a series of criticisms and remarks. I must talk about some of them to make my position clear. This position remains the same across all versions of the film.
For example: I was told that, in order to depict national specificity, it would be more appropriate to give more picturesque details of the everyday life of the people. My critics must surely have been thinking about the preparation of the shashlik, the ‘nerds’ game, and so on. But stringent analysis demonstrates that these exotic details do not correspond to my aims, since they represent a superficial and impoverished representation of national specificity. These exotic details cannot be elevated to the status of an authentic national tradition, which is determined by inner reason.
Another question that has been asked is ‘Why are the soldiers protecting the border not shown in your film?’ I answer that there are no soldiers protecting the border in my film, and there are also no plumbers – many other people, who work in many other important professions, are absent. It is important for me to show creative men, not to enumerate their professions.
I have been reproached for reminding everyone about the massacre of the Armenians at the hands of the Turks. What can be said to this? Not long ago, I learned that one of the members of the jury of the Oberhausen Film Festival asked his Soviet colleagues: which historical event is shown in the archival material of Us? He was told that in 1915, when Europe was at war, a slaughter took place in Armenia in which one and a half or two million people were killed. He was not aware of this and remained doubtful about the number of deaths: ‘Are you sure? Perhaps they were twenty thousand? Two million people, you say? But this is almost half the people killed in Auschwitz!’ That is correct. When I remind people about this event, I do not try to focus the attention of the audience on that concrete fact. I try to highlight the terror caused by the imperialist wars that force one nation to kill another. The archival footage included in the film contains French newsreels of the war, as well as German and British newsreels. In saying this, I want to stress the idea of the inadmissibility of any hostility between nations, of any kind of genocide. The honour of a nation does not lie in the extermination of other nations. And this goes for all nations. So when the film shows the return of the Armenians to the homeland, this archival footage speaks of the inadmissibility of world wars that take people away from their lands, from their compatriots. These shots demonstrate the revival of the nation, the process of formation of the contemporary qualities of the national spirit – qualities that develop during the social cataclysms and revolutionary processes of the 20th century.
In selecting the material for this film, the most important thing was not the factual contents of the shot, but its metaphoric resonance. The archival footage was complemented by the material shot by my cinematographer so that, in all the main scenes of the film, there are shots of the masses produced by the filmmaker. The episode titled ‘The Grand Burials’ and the final episode referring to repatriation have the same underlying structure.
In order to maintain the uniformity of cinematography, the footage shot by the DP was reprinted from the negative. And the use of archival footage was relatively limited.
I have already said that, in selecting the archival material, the most important condition was its metaphoric resonance, its expressivity, its capacity to communicate a generalisation. When the montage was completed, it became clear that medium shots were almost completely absent from the film, that it was wholly comprised of long shots and close-ups. This was not a chance occurrence. I do not deny the role of the medium shot in cinema, and I admit that its use can be very valuable. But, looking for the most accurate expression of the idea in my film, I chose another method, and I consistently refuse to use medium shots. A close-up, as a rule, is more expressive than a medium shot, where the object is surrounded by the details of everyday life.
Many people think that a close-up must not be placed right next to a long shot, that they can be connected only through the insertion of a medium shot in between. I think this is a myth, an artificial, normative rule. I am convinced that the possibilities of montage are boundless. No one can deny that it is completely feasible to edit a close-up of a human eye right next to a very long shot of the galaxy!
|In this comparison immediately the first thing to appear clearly relating to the principal function of montage in our cinema is – not only and not so much to show or to present, as to signify, to give meaning, to designate. (12)||
One of the main issues in my work on this film was the montage of the visual and the aural. I tried to find the organic unity between the two, so that the visual and the aural can simultaneously express one and the same image, one and the same thought, one and the same affective sensation. So that the sound would be inextricably linked with the image, and the image would be inextricably linked with the sound! My starting point was, and still is, the fact that the only justification of the use of sound in my films should be, in a figurative way, its aesthetic function. We must find the critical expressiveness even in ambient noises and, if it is necessary, we must transform their resonance. That is why synchronous sound and voice-over commentary remain absent from my films.
Thus the most important function of expression of thought is delegated to montage. Unfortunately, many people define this kind of cinema as ‘montage film’ and, in so doing, they automatically accuse them of some artistic deficiency and perhaps even conceptual deficiency. One may as well accuse music for its musicality; trees for their woodiness; jokes for their lack of seriousness.
12. Eisenstein, ed. & trans. Jay Leyda, The Film Form (New York: Meridian Books, 1957), pp. 237-8. Translator’s note: the William Powell translation of this essay (‘Dickens, Griffith and Ourselves’ in his version, ‘Dickens, Griffith, and the Film Today’ in Leyda’s) renders ‘near’ as ‘closely’, and the chain of italicised words ‘to signify, to give meaning, to designate’ as ‘to mean, to denote, to signify’. See Selected Works – Volume III (BFI/Indiana, 1996), pp. 193-238.
If it were possible to use synchronous sound alongside the image in such a way that the sound is able to carry its metaphorical function, it can and must be used. The same can be said with regards to dialogue and the use of off-screen commentary: they should aspire to become indispensable elements of the image.
I cannot imagine any of my films without music. When I write a film script, I must envisage, from the very beginning, the musical structure of the film, its musical accents, the emotional and rhythmic character of the music for each sequence. For me, music is not an addition to the image. It is, first of all, the expression of an idea, which conveys, in its indissoluble unity with the visual, the meaning of the image. For me, it is also the music of the form. I mean that the unfolding form of the musical work depends, at each moment, on the form of the whole, on its composition, its duration. I have already said that any change or reduction in any fragment of the film forces me to make other changes, to rebuild the whole film. Now I want to discuss this in more detail.
Whenever I cut out this or that fragment of the film material, I had to substitute it. Not only because of thematic considerations. The duration of the whole film and the duration of each sequence are determined by the same law. From this point of view, the film is similar to a musical work. I substituted the material that was cut with other material, but not because I needed to show a specific fact at that particular point in the film. For me, it was much more important not to lose the theme that should he heard in this particular place, with this particular duration. By eliminating a fragment, the proportions of the film were broken, the compositional time was broken. In order to save the compositional line, I sometimes had to insert some neutral material into the film although, in a figurative sense, it was a material of an insignificant value. (As examples, I can refer to the shots of the broken-down car, of smoke, and some others.)
All this has to do also with the work with the soundtrack. Here, the laws of compositional time act with the same precision. One must find the exact ‘dose’ of duration and degree of resonance for each acoustic element, and establish the exact balance of the movement of sounds.
From the moment cinema acquired sound, many different definitions of the role that sound plays in a film have been generated. Sound (including music) is seen as an element of the narrative representation, as an illustration, as an accompaniment, as a means of creating a certain mood, and finally as a contrapuntal element. Through my own practice, I have gradually come to conclusion that none of the above definitions satisfies me, and that the potential possibilities of film sound are significantly broader and richer. I have always strove to model the sound/image combination on an analogy not with the physical mixing of elements, but a chemical reaction. And suddenly I realised that, by trying to emphasise the value and the expressiveness of sound, I am editing not only the soundtrack, but also the image – and, in so doing, I violate those montage canons and methods that I had previously tried to follow.
I would like to focus the main part of my theoretical work on this ‘deviation’.
Eisenstein, The Film Sense, pp. 1-65.
14. Vertov, Kino-Eye, p. 8.
I define this type of montage as montage-at-a-distance.
Here I will explain the mechanics of montage-at-a-distance using the material of my own films. Such ‘mechanics’ are determined by a single purpose: to express the ideas that occupy me, to communicate to the audience my philosophical position.
In Us, the first bearing element of the montage-at-a-distance appears in the very beginning. The film starts with a pause that is followed by a shot of a girl’s face. The figurative meaning of this shot is not yet clear for the audience; initially it creates only a feeling of anxiety and meditation. At this moment music is introduced, and after that comes another pause with a fade-out. The face of the girl appears again on screen after 500 metres of film, accompanied by the same symphonic accord. This bearing element of montage is reintroduced for the third time at the end of the film, in the repatriation episode, but this time only as sound: the symphonic accord is heard again over the shot of the people who have exited onto the balcony. This kind of construction can be understood most easily as a repetition. But their repetition is not the only function of these montage elements.
For example, in my first film, Mountain Patrol (Gornyp patrul, 1964), which tells a story of the brave men who, day after day, look after the safe passage of the trains running along the gorges of Armenia, this device of shot repetition is also used. The film starts and ends with the same shots depicting the climbers working in the mountains with their lanterns against the darkness of the sky. Here again, there is a distance between the shots. But this distance (as well as sameness of the shots) does not amount to a montage-at-a-distance effect in this film – only to a repetition, a return to the initial mood, thus facilitating its lyrical resolution.
A similar device was used in Land of the People, built on a different montage method: the principle of the associative collision of the shots, connected by the same theme. This theme is the endless discovery of the beauty of the world by a man through his life and work; this theme is deployed through the images of a working day in a big city.
This film starts and ends with a repeated image of Rodin’s sculpture ‘The Thinker’; a sculpture, known by all, that has become a symbol of the eternal expression of human thought.
Besides the function of repetition, which gives to the film its poetic resolution, it is possible here – potentially – to also discover the function of working-at-a-distance. When the film ends, the Rodin sculpture acquires a qualitatively different meaning from the one it had at the beginning; the final shot seems to open a new cycle of thought, which waits for its continuation beyond the limits of the film.
With regard to Us, the repeated montage elements go decisively beyond the limits of the functions they fulfilled in the films Mountain Patrol and Land of the People. In Us these elements are entirely subordinated to the task of supporting the general construction of the montage-at-a-distance.
The shot, shown at a particular point, reveals its entire semantic effect only some time later, when a montage connection has been established in the mind of the spectator – not only between the repeated elements, but also between the material that surrounds them in each particular case.
So the key bearing montage elements convey only the most condensed expression of the theme but, at the same time, through establishing connections across the distance, contribute to the semantic development and even to the evolution of those shots and episodes with which they had no direct contact.
Each time, these elements appear in a different context with a different semantic meaning. And, the most important principle of all: this is the montage of contexts.
By changing the contexts, we achieve the intensification and deepening of the theme. And when, at the end of Us, the symphonic accord is heard once again, the meaning of the image of the girl at the beginning becomes clear.
This triple occurrence (the little girl at the beginning – the girl in the middle – the people on the balcony at the end) allows us to see the foundation of its montage-at-a-distance. But in Us there are also other bearing elements, presented in the image and the sound. These elements appear one after the other in the first half of the film. I will list them here: the sighs; the sound of the choir; the first close-up of hands; the image of the mountains. Afterwards, these elements seem to branch out – some elements of the image and of the soundtrack shift to other segments, other places and other moments of the action. They extend partially into other episodes, colliding with other elements and situations. But as soon as the image of the girl appears for a second time, all these disconnected elements are reassembled and, as if receiving a new order, they follow in a different sequence, in a modified form, to fulfill new functions.
First enters the choir, then the sighs (which have transformed into a yell), then the hands and, finally, the mountains once again.
I want to once again stress: montage-at-a-distance can be built out of visual elements, and out of sonic elements, as well as from any assemblage of image and sound. By organising my films around such connections of elements, I hope that my films themselves become similar to live organisms, supported by a system of complex inner links and interactions.
It is easy to see that in Us, the best parts are the first and the third. They are the best precisely because, in them, the montage-at-a-distance works most effectively. In the second part, because of the cutting out of episodes and the introduction of substitutions, the principles of montage-at-a-distance do not work. This leads to the weakness of the second part, which turned out to be the weakness of the film as a whole.
I think this explains the remarks I discussed earlier, which spoke not of those insufficiencies that are present in the film but of those which are, conversely, not present in the film.
So, once the system of montage-at-a-distance is found, it is henceforth impossible to make any particular change, to arbitrarily eliminate one or another element. The system is accepted in its entirety, or else rejected in its entirety.
Some analogies can be found between the interaction of the elements-at-a-distance I am talking about, and composition in poetry and music. But these analogies have an external and, more importantly, a descriptive character. The way they function is different in principle, so that the analysis of such analogies requires special attention and separate, detailed, concrete discussion.
Here I will elaborate on another essential feature of montage-at-a-distance. In the system of relations-at-a-distance, not only the semantic meaning of different shots is modulated; it also seems necessary to rethink and rename the usual designation of these shots (i.e., wide shot, medium shot, long shot). For example, the final full shot of Us – the people standing on balconies – acquires the function and the resonance of a close-up, because of the relations-at-a-distance with other shots. The same logic operates in the episodes ‘The Grand Burials’ and ‘The Repatriation’, which assume the individual value of ‘close-up’ shots, although both episodes are comprised entirely of medium shots. As we can see, the traditional designation of the shots – long shot, medium shot and close-up shot – thus acquires a provisional, unstable character. In each of these cases, any of these three shots can be given the title of close-up, depending on the task and on the charge that the montage-at-a-distance gives them. As a result, by changing the place and influence of a shot, the montage-at-a-distance can lead to the predominance, as well as changing the balance between shots.
The main, distinctive feature of montage-at-a-distance is that the montage connection is established not only between the isolated elements as such (a point with a point) but, and this is more important, between whole sets of elements (between a point and a group, between a group and a group, between a shot and an episode, between an episode and an episode). Thus one process starts to interact with another, diametrically opposite to the first one. I define this fact, provisionally, as a block principle of montage-at-a-distance.
In Us, the initial episode ‘The Grand Burials’, which is built using various montage methods (including montage-at-a-distance), takes on the new function of influence-at-a-distance.
We can see this block function when we reach, in the last part of the film, ‘The Repatriation’. When block episodes interact at a distance, they reveal, on the one hand, the specific character of the theme; on the other hand, they give to this theme an unresolved character, as each episode ends in ‘its own place’, with a question mark.
So, on seeing the burial episode on screen, we derive from it an autonomous meaning of concrete burials, and we construe the image of the people in a typical life situation.
The final, repatriation episode also has an autonomous meaning when we see the concrete fact of the men returning to their homeland; at the same time, we perceive the image of unity between men and nature.
But because these two blocks separated by a certain distance in the narrative are made with the help of the same thematic elements (in one block, the close-up shots of the hands carrying the coffin, and the image of the steep and craggy mountains; in the other block, the intertwined hands in an embrace, and the mountains, not steeping down this time, but extending upwards), then the interaction at a distance takes place not only between these elements, but also – with their help –among whole block-episodes.
As a result, we can see how these episodes ‘erupt’ beyond the limits of their real, autonomous themes and, thanks to the influence of the block montage, change their individuality – creating a new idea, at the same time communicating a new nuance, a new understanding, a new resonance, to each separate episode:
|in the first case: ‘loss, death’; in the second case: ‘finding, life’|
This block montage method is also used in The Inhabitants (Tarva Yeghanaknere / Obitateli, 1970), as well as The Beginning.
The Inhabitants is based on the idea of a humane attitude toward nature and wildlife: ‘Stop, man, and look around: what have you done?’ It is about the assault of man against nature, and the rise of the threat of a change in nature’s harmony.
The Beginning is dedicated to the great revolutionary processes in the social transformation of the world. It is based on the connections between numerous documents from historical film archives. Here the method of block influence is used according to other combinations of elements.
The first bearing section of the montage comprises a group of shots: Lenin’s raised hand; the appearance of the title The Beginning; and the images of running men, from the time of the October Revolution. The second bearing section is represented by the final episode, where once again the title The Beginning appears, but this time against a background shot of a multitude of people running, images taken from contemporary news footage of the social struggle in different countries of the world.
I will not elaborate specifically on other bearing montage elements here: sonic, as well as visual elements (music, the sound of gunshots, the image of hands, shots of men hammering, and so on).
Due to the interaction at a distance of these two bearing blocks, all the individual themes, each separate from the other, are placed in compositional hierarchies of various kinds and, at the same time, they constitute an entire whole that carries not only the feeling of deep connection between the past and the present, but also the idea of the connection between the present and the future – thus adding depth and nuance to the treatment of the main idea of dialectical continuity and the infinity of social development.
In this manner, various themes, introduced at different ends of these films, due to the interaction between the blocks, work as opposite aspects of the same process.
If, in The Beginning, I show the gradual development of the life process, from causes to consequences, in Us the opposite path is revealed: from consequences to causes. I show in the first place the event, and afterwards I find the origins of this event, its historical explanation.
As we can see, in The Beginning the historical becomes contemporaneous, and in Us the contemporaneous becomes historical.
Here we can see yet another basic resource that is provided by the method of montage-at-a-distance.
As we know, Eisenstein, in a critical discussion with Vertov, set against the latter’s Cine-Eye his own slogan of the Cine-Fist; against Vertov’s ‘’I see’, his own ‘ I understand’. (15) Those were two different approaches, two different attitudes toward the conceptual and montage interpretation of the original cinematic material. ‘Thinking on the celluloid’, Vertov did not separate himself from direct observation of reality; while transforming what he filmed into a poetic image, he kept the factual primacy of the life material. Eisenstein himself created and gave form to the initial material of his films, already understanding the film at this stage as a secondary reality, which gave him the possibility of embodying the historical in the contemporaneous, of interpreting the contemporaneous as historical.
Now we can say not only that Eisenstein’s and Vertov’s principles were opposites – but that, paradoxically, they in fact agreed with each other. Both cases spoke, although in different ways, to the system of the author’s worldview as a measure and gauge of the filmed material.
And the experience of montage-at-a-distance in The Beginning and Us shows, in turn, that the task of conceptual and semantic organisation, as well as the interpretation of original (primary or secondary) material, requires not only the Cine-Eye and the Cine-Fist – as the systems of the author’s worldview for the measurement and evaluation of the filmed material – but also the Cine-Will: that is, the cinematic system or cinematic method for the measurement of the system of the author’s worldview.
In order to more clearly demonstrate the specificity of montage-at-a-distance, I will present the following diagrams.
If the montage connections, examined from the point of view of ‘collision’ or ‘interval’ between adjacent shots, can be designated in this way –
15. Eisenstein, Selected Works – Volume I, pp. 58-64. Translator’s note: we have adopted Taylor’s rendering of Cine-Eye and Cine-Fist throughout this text; other references (such as Michelson) use Kino-Eye, etc.
– then, from the point of view of montage-at-a-distance, the relations between the shots (or blocks) look very different:
This diagram highly simplifies the real situation, since the interaction-at-a-distance between shots and blocks occurs over different distances, through multiple intermediate links, through paths so complex and so full of twists and turns that it is impossible to grasp immediately the trajectory of the general form of their common movement. Besides, there is no need to do that here.
I will say what is most important: montage-at-a-distance forges the film structure not in the form of a usual montage ‘chain’, nor even in the form of a combination of different chains, but finally creates a circular shape or, more precisely, a rotating spherical configuration.
The bearing shots or segments, by representing the more intensely ‘charged centres’ of the montage-at-a-distance, not only interact with other elements in a linear fashion, but also fulfill a kind of ‘nuclear function’ by maintaining the bidirectional connection with any other point, along vector lines, with any other segment of the film. By doing this, they initiate among all the subordinate links a chain reaction, descending on the one hand, ascending on the other.
The bearing segments, connected by these lines, create gigantic circles on both sides, trailing along in their respective rotation all the other elements of the film. They rotate in colliding centrifugal directions, catching each other, and seemingly crashing into each other, as do the badly adjusted teeth of a cog.
Every time, in any position, at any point of screen time, they constantly change their position and configuration, which creates the effect of a film pulsating or breathing.
In the montage-at-a-distance method, the interaction between all the elements of montage happens so fast, instantaneously, practically simultaneously, that the measure of speed becomes independent of the measure of the distance between these elements.
If the method based on the collision of adjacent shots essentially created distances (or intervals) between shots, then montage-at-a-distance, by making the shots connect through a distance, intertwine them so strongly that, in fact, this distance is annihilated.
Montage-at-a-distance is not a trove of ready, autonomous procedures that can be used in any way whatsoever.
It is a method to express the authorial thought of the film director, and it can be put to use only in the way required, each time, by a concrete idea or conception.
One must envisage beforehand – on the basis of a specific conceptual aim – and one must know which elements can and will interact at a distance, must know their thematic content. One must plan beforehand all the paths of their journey, all the means of development, the changes of angles and coordinates of every kind, that these elements create in each segment of time, from the starting point to the arrival point.
In short, one must have a clear view of everything from the beginning, so that one can fully control all the processes and, consequently, be certain of the course of audience reaction to the film.
The features and traits of montage-at-a-distance that have become clear have such deep roots that they lay the ground for a new explanation of the nature of cinema, and of the laws of cinematic art.
For example: the montage-at-a-distance method is based not on the ‘continual interaction of sound recording and image’, as Vertov said (and Eisenstein concurred), but on the constant interaction between ‘diffuse’ processes, where, on the one hand, the image is disintegrated by the soundtrack and, on the other hand, the soundtrack is disintegrated by the image.
A reflection of these processes can be traced on screen, although it is difficult to capture them there.
If we examine it closely, we discover that the image on screen, as it unfolds detail by detail, cannot be grasped in its entirety before we make out the details (as is the case with spatial art); on the contrary, because it is perceived through the eyes, it acquires the contours of the whole gradually, from the particularities that follow each other and are connected together in our mind with the necessary participation of memory. And this, as we know, is characteristic of the temporal arts.
As a result, what emerges is similar to a vision of the contours of an architectural construction – not in its entirety, but detail by detail, following one another and connecting into a whole, not only through the eye but, most important of all, with the help of memory: not in space, but in time.
The fact that they unfold in time gives instability to the spatial arts, and on the other hand, the spatial dynamics adds instability to the temporal arts.
That is why, on screen, ‘hearing’ turns into an unstable condition of viewing, and ‘seeing’ becomes an unstable condition of hearing.
Thus, such a state of the different elements of a film which, taken separately, are dislocated from their own ‘territories’ and lack stability, proves the fact that what takes place on screen is not a direct interaction between the different spatial and temporal processes, but indeed the interaction between opposite and unstable processes where, on the one hand, the image functions as a transformed sound and, on the other hand, the reverse of this process takes place: sound functions as a transformed state of the image.
Since in montage-at-a-distance the elements of the spatial and temporal arts, although in an unstable process of disintegration, never fuse together, retaining a distance between each other, we can see that, in this case, the cinematic artwork is not built out of the synthesis of the spatial and temporal arts as such, but rather upon the foundations on which each of these spatial and temporal arts is based, in its particular way.
In other words: cinema, based on the method of interaction-at-a-distance, cannot be any longer called a synthetic art, since it does not ‘drink from the waters’ of literature, music and painting, but rather from the same source that literature, music and painting themselves do.
It follows thus that the birth of cinematic art cannot be understood as a synthetic, mechanical or non-mechanical, merger of different kinds of art.
Cinema is not born from them; on the contrary, these arts should, in principle, have their origin in cinema – in spite of the fact that the objective historical process we all know tells us that we had, saw and knew those who were ‘born’ before we had, saw and knew who ‘gave birth.’
Let us return now to our opening image of the monster devouring that from which it is born. This image should not strike us as strange or absurd; rather it is one of the most striking conclusions derived from the theory of distance.
Both the method and the system of montage-at-a-distance do not deny or eclipse Eisenstein’s and Vertov’s montage methods, but ‘the extent of the influence’ of their methods within interaction-at-a-distance is reduced, and fulfilling a circumscribed, limited function.
I am convinced that cinema, based on the method of montage-at-a-distance, is capable of revealing and explaining the connections between known and unknown events of the world around us, connections that could not have been explored by a cinema based on either the interval theory or the collision theory of adjacent elements.
Montage-at-a-distance cinema is able also to reveal any kind of movement: from the lowest and most elementary to the highest and most complex. This cinema is able to simultaneously speak the languages of art, philosophy and science.
We can recall here that the very word cinematograph comes from Greek words that signify the inscription of movement.
I consider my film Us, and those previous to it, to be exploratory works. The method of image creation that I discovered there, has not yet achieved a complete and finished form in them. This is precisely why my films do not represent the conclusion of my exploration, but only a very important stage for me.
Until now, I have been able to work only with documentary material. In fiction cinema, this experience can achieve persuasion and verisimilitude in the creation of ambiance and atmosphere, achieve a dramatic intensity. I believe the way to use the principles of montage-at-a-distance can be found, and must be found, in fiction cinema. By incorporating acting and colour into this method, the fiction cinema will help to deploy all the resources of this method, resources that will no longer be limited to the documentary medium.
To achieve this, I think it is necessary to use all the resources of cinema that were discovered by our teachers. But the development of cinema requires also that new resources of aesthetics expression be found.
It is in this sense that I referred to the old story of the invention of the wheel.
I want to say by way of conclusion: if Vertov, relying on his montage method based on the interrelation between adjacent elements, invited filmmakers to go ‘flee – out into the open’, into the relativity of space and time (according to Albert Einstein’s theory), then the method of montage-at-a-distance, based on complex forms of the interrelation of different processes, pushes to the outermost, into a place where our notions and laws of space and time are useless; where those who are being born do not know whom they kill, and those who are dying do not know whom they beget.
This is a new translation by Julia Vassilieva of Pelechian’s major theoretical work (first composed and dated March 1971 – January 1972), based on its definitive version as published in his book Moe Kino (Erevan: Sovetakan Grogh, 1988).
from Issue 6: Distances
Original Russian text © Artavazd Pelechian, 1988.
This English translation © Julia Vassilieva and LOLA, December 2015.
Cannot be reprinted without permission of the author and editors.